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Happy Happy

Opéra National de Montpellier

Under the direction of Valérie Chevalier, the Montpellier opera house and orchestra are striving to put the fractious goings on of the past seasons behind it. Despite severe financial constraints, the current season, conceived by outgoing director Jean-Paul Scarpitta, opened on November 19 with the world premiere of Happy Happy by Mathis Nitschke.  Urs Schönebaum directed, with Arno Waschk conducting the Montpellier chorus and orchestra.

This was the composer's second opera for Montpellier after Jetzt in 2012. Given the perilous state of the house, the appropriately entitled Happy Happy is described by the composer as “an operatic song-cycle with party,” which neatly captures the playful aspect of the evening. The work takes various fragments of poetry from Rilke to Shelley with no linear dramatic-progression, but linked by concerns over the contemporary individual’s dreams set against the crowd's relentless Happy Happy aspirations. Nitschke's sixty-five minute score makes no claims for avant-garde originality. This was a musical collage that drew its sources from the Baroque to backstreet rapers with colorful electronic effects. The score was at its best when the composer shook themes to produce a witty musical decomposition: the “Dies Irae” from Verdi's Requiem was a good example of his gift for playing with musical memory. 

The individual voice of the composer was more difficult to classify. His eclectic tonality often sounded derivative, but Nitschke never sought to alienate the public with taxing modernism. The evening brought to mind the music theater of the late 1970s and the musical parodies of Mauricio Kagel. Of the electronic colorings the final snatch of poem “In the wild woods” allowed the voice of Karen Vourc'h to be layered to form a haunting tiered version of her voice. In what was almost a one-woman show, the soprano was outstanding. Always at her best in unusual musical circumstances, the artist seized on opportunities which ranged from a raunchy jazz diva to a pure soaring Baroque soprano, bringing to mind the versatility of the late Cathy Berberian.

Waschk conducted with admirable clarity, and kept a complex score admirably in place. It was particularly pleasing to find the Montpellier chorus at the heart of the show, acting like a Greek chorus and singing with enthusiastic commitment, including four excellent soloists. In monochrome costumes on an open stage, Schönebaum directed the company with discreet precision, brightened by some intelligently placed geometric tubular lights, admirably showing what can be achieved on a limited budget. It was disappointing that the premiere failed to attract a capacity audience, but hopefully the house will win back its position at the cultural heart of the university city. spacer 


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